Just shy of forty appearances as Guest Conductor for the New York Philharmonic, native UWS New Yorker, Alan Gilbert, was thrown into the international cult of conducting stardom, and appointed (Summer 2007) as the incoming Music Director to the venerable New York institution. Will the New York Philharmonic's gamble pay off? For the next five years, New York's podium belongs to this 40-something wiz kid of two New York Philharmonic violinists (one former, as daddy Michael -- who totally looks like Dwight Eisenhower -- has retired), Juilliard/Harvard/ Curtis Institute-trained, former pupil of Solti -- to round-out the prestigious former MD title holders of the New York Philharmonic (Gustav Mahler, John Barbirolli, Leonard Bernstein, & Toscanini, those heavyweight legacies -- OC's favorite Toscanini quote: "Even donkeys can conduct, but make music, eh? Difficile!").
For Lincoln Center's high profile 50th Anniversary season, which has already poured millions of dollars into a face-lift for the dated, sprawling, 1960s stomping grounds (and a revitalized logo) ostentatiously pulls the cherubic-faced Gilbert into the spotlight. Will he make the joint cooler? Will he make us laugh, cry, and make us feel all funny in our expensive Eres britches?
Will he manage to be cooler than Dudi on the West Coast? And with better hair?
NYC's concert halls seriously need a little more flava -- does Gilbert have the right stuff?
The maestro stepped out onto Avery Fisher Hall's weathered stage in a his frac, white bow-tie, beaming exuberantly for his inaugural launch with his New York Phils at last night's Opening Gala. Magnus Lindberg, the Finnish composer (and former E-Pek BFF...the two even founded an instrumental ensemble together at the Sibelius Academy) who just began his 2-year appointment as the NYPhil's official Composer-in-Residence, enjoyed a high-profile debut of his work, marking the inaugural piece conducted by Gilbert as Music Director (and starting out your tenure with Lindberg, then Messiaen is a very very good omen).
This "EXPO" is one of Lindberg's two, newly-commissioned works, this one as stated by the composer was specifically written in homage to Alan Gilbert's premiere as MD. "EXPO" literally started with the crack of a whip (the work's instrumentation calls for it), whipping (huh) the orchestra into a frenzy. The snazzy piece took on a very flourished, assuming nature and overexerted itself at times -- like a petulant teenager. Ambitious ideas gave way to big, complex sounds: not Magnus at his best, but a pretty brash, kick-a$$ way to warn everubody that there's a new sheriff in town. The short work was really just the appetizer for the night's big big thing -- Renee Fleming singing Olivier Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi.
Renee glided onto the stage in a shoulder-baring royal blue gown with an iridescent brown wrap by Angel Sanchez. Girl's got an undebatable, gorgeous body and we know she works hard on maintaining it, which is why we'd love to see her show it off with edgier, fashion-forward, revealing dresses and less of the junior prom style she insists upon -- she's almost bashful about being stunning. She shouldn't.
Nonetheless, flawless as ever, Renee's Messiaen was, for many reasons, the highlight of the evening. Hearkening to the spirited collaboration between the composer and former MD Zubin Mehta (handled the world premiere of Messiaen's Eclairs sur l'Au-dela), the selection was a knock-out by Gilbert, and we laud him for choosing the rarely-performed gem.
"Mi" was the sobriquet of Messiaen's violist wife, Claire Delbos, whom he had married only four years prior to the composition of the nine-song cycle, serving as propaganda of their happy union. The work was composed in the Summer of 1936, spent in the foothills of the Alps, and one can't escape the many allusions to pastorals and bucolic landscapes. The poems are divided into two books, originally worked for voice and piano, an intimate and dulcet conversation between the two instruments.
Fleming stepped it up and hit a grand slam for the NY Phils, one of the best sopranos on this sorry planet since Montserrat Caballé, mirroring the score with a sparkling smile, flawless delivery, unguarded emotion and an open, gentle heart. Throughout the cycle, Gilbert and Fleming worked together seamlessly (until they reached a small kink at the end of the cycle) shadowing each other respectfully and transparently. Gilbert, who simply gets this piece, expressed great foreshadowing at the inception of the work, which gave way to a flowering, enrapturing movement that later turned crystalline and snappy. Fleming was in clear voice, with "Epouvante" and "L'epouse" showcasing her gorgeous, middle and lower registers. Willowy and ringing, the work was an escapade of emotion and color. As sung in, "Paysage", she was the veritable "gros bijou bleu", the big blue jewel of the evening.
"Le Colliere" in the second book of the cycle demonstrated Gilbert's conducting chops and how he can easily slip into the backlights of the performance. He allowed the orchestra to shape itself without demanding or insisting upon the spotlight. He blended into the background, a canvas prepped. He melted away in front of the orchestra so that it became all about them, and his presence barely registered at all. However, this could also be considered his biggest flaw in light of the emerging pop cult of young conductors: Dudamel, Gardner, Harding, Axelrod, Ticciati -- all conductors with such bubbling, charismatic personalities that they imprint their orchestras with kinetic and infectious energy long before they've even raised their batons. Gilbert, on the other hand, has unoubtedly depth and introspection and intellect, but asserts himself without foisting it in your face. Without that kind of theatrical charisma, he'll need to shape his personality as a conductor, to which luckily he has many years to embark on that journey. He's too young to be the severe, grayed, introspective tyrant -- yet too old to be the sprite. If anything, Gilbert could be accused of lacking a certain thunder, an underlying weight and anchor to the music.
If "Le Colliere" was the highlight of Gilbert's skill, the following "Priere Exaucee" was where Gilbert became too invested in the orchestra and lost focus of the soloist. The orchestra swelled into such a colorful presence, that Fleming was drowned in the maelstrom. Overworked and over-bloomed, the synthesis was lost. Regardless, Fleming exited to a standing ovation, completely deserved for her astonishing work.
After the intermission, the predictable show-stopper, Hector Berlioz's Symphonie Fantastique. OC admires Berlioz, that cranky Frenchman, but his Fantastique isn't one of OC's favorites. Give us Roméo et Juliette, L'enfance du Christ, Te Deum, Troyens, or Béatrice et Bénedict any day. The Fantastique is too often the domain of the flashy and the vulgar. Seiji Ozawa, by far the greatest living Berlioz conductor, knows very well that Berlioz’s Fantastique is a visionary work of awesome power and centrifugal force. The problem is that most conductors – unlike Ozawa or, to a much lesser extent, Muti – ignore the nooks and crannies that give meaning to the almost psychedelic nature of this symphony, diving instead in an ocean of bombast and, often, simply noise.
Alan Gilbert is too subtle a musician to fall in that trap, but he does lack Ozawa’s discipline -- and a measure of ruthlessness -- that would allow a conductor to explore Berlioz’s revolutionary counterpoint. What Gilbert did last night, if elegant, was neither merciless enough nor lean enough to illuminate what's hiding in the scarily difficult score, that's full of traps.
Gilbert's first movement, Allegro agitato e appassionato was an earnest effort -- hesitant, savored, delicate at times, which built to a lovely crescendo with a good weight and pulse, 'tho a bit muddied at times. The second movement, Allegro non troppo, was a legato reading of the ballroom waltz that satisfied, but left something to be desired.
The Adagio is when Gilbert lost his way a bit. He's undoubtedly musical, obvs, but relied on the compositional beauty of the work to keep the performance buoyant when it needed more edge and personality, more shaping -- it needs to be cut like a diamond in every moment. His pragmatic approach did justice to the work, but he didn't touch on any new ideas, which left us wanting more. The fourth movement, Allegretto non troppo, was a bit of the same. It might be challenging for Gilbert to find effective expression when the composition is muted in color. When there's more subtle movement, it seems Gilbert wallows in the score to find depth, which may not always be the best approach. The final movement, Larghetto -- Allegro, bounced back for Gilbert, with a great range of dynamics, very visceral and stirring. We would have liked to hear it more savored and labored, but Gilbert must have been so excited to conclude his nerve-rattling debut.
All in all, we look forward to hearing more from Gilbert. Now that he's at the helm, it's hard to imagine anyone else holding the baton. We're curious for his skills as an opera conductor, and could see him flourishing at the podium (we're looking forward to hearing his May 2010 NYC premiere of Ligeti's Le Grand Macabre). But the night was lackluster, as hit & miss as the tepid star power that turned up for the evening: Meryl Streep , Billy Joel, and Alec Baldwin (natch, as he's been appointed to fill-in hosting duties for the NYPhil and interviewed Gilbert during the half-time show). Although the honorary celebrity spotting goes to Evgeny Kissin, Russian pianist who's in town for his October 1 Carnegie Hall Opening Night, in the mens bathroom fluffing his 'fro.